This year 2013 will see the Kumbha Mela being held at Prayag. The word “Prayag” means “confluence”, a special confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswathi Rivers.
The Kumbha Mela is one of the oldest and largest congregations of Indian civilization. In a sense, it is a congregation more than a festival.
Indian thought and practices over time immemorial have commemorated certain days and festivals as ways and means for people to understand, remember and reunite with the Universe and the scientific divinities of the Universe. These festivals become gateways for people to reach out and be in communion with these divinities.
The Kumbh is the Gateway to understand the concept of Creation.
The Kumbh festival is based on the story of creation where the Kumbh, the pot of nectar spilled out its contents and led to the formation of the Universe. This is a depiction of the profound description in the Veda of the scientific process of Creation from the cosmic egg called Hiranyagarbha, a golden hued womb which bursts open as a Brahmanda Visfotak, a Big Bang, to spew out the Universe.
In the Kumbh festival we see the connect between
the allegorical Puranic legend of creation from a kumbh, pot,
the traditional Vedic explanation of creation and
the modern cosmological scientific description of creation from the Big Bang.
It is to correlate the microcosm with the macrocosm, Yatha Pinde, Thatha Brahmande. The thought goes back to the start of Creation, an event that transcends religion and geographies.
Continuous records of the Kumbh festival go back to over 5100 years and more.
There is mention of the Kumbh and the bathing ritual associated with it, in the Rig Veda (verse 10.89.7). It speaks of the values of bathing in the river during this period and how it eliminates negative influences and rejuvenates one positively, when done with piety.
The praying to the Kumbha is also expressed in other Veda such as Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda.
This tells us that the concept of Kumbha and what it portrays has been venerated from Vedic times itself which goes back to atleast 5100 years ago.
Later down in history, during the period of Emperor Harshavardhana, who ruled from Sthaneshwar, in present day Haryana and later from Kannauj, around 640 CE, there was a Kumbh Mela gathering at Prayaga in the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna. Prayaga was a part of his kingdom. About 5 lakh people had assembled then. After going through the elaborate sequence of rituals, he gave Dhana – gifts, donations, to the scholars and sanyasis assembled there. His generosity was so great that he had given off everything he had brought with him and finally had to return with a piece of simple cloth loaned to him by his sister.
We learn this from the accounts of both Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 – 664 CE), the Chinese traveller who visited India between 629 – 645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana as well as from Harshacharita, of Bana, the court poet in the kingdom of Harshavardhana.
This act of emperor Harshavardhana reflects the ethos of the land, of giving Dhana at such confluences.
Even as recent as 1895, Mark Twain, the celebrated author, wrote in his book “Following the Equator: A journey around the world”, his experience of visiting the Kumbh Mela.
“It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
The Kumbh festival was instituted and popularized by some of the ancient Kings and saints as an occasion for congregating together to discuss Creation amidst other scientific concepts.
This festival was given the present format by Adi Shankara. Since then, for the last 2500 years, it has been celebrated in this format.
The purpose of the Kumbha Mela was for the people and the Sanyasis, to confluence at a confluence of water bodies, stay for period of three months and discuss in that period various aspects of Sanatana Dharma, its interpretations, its relevance for their present times, the problems that were faced by the society of that generation and the solutions for them within Dharma.
The Snanas that are interspersed on astronomically significant days are only the ritual highlights. The primary purpose of the Kumbh festival, has been the interaction between the people and the sadhus, to discuss issues of the society.
Through these festivals our ancients have shown us the path to experiencing knowledge and putting it to proper use.
Once we understand the true meaning, the knowledge and the spirit behind what we do and why we do certain things, it will signal a new beginning for us to live in union with nature and in harmony with one another.